Those of you who know me know I'm a great proponent of languages because I don't believe you can fully understand a culture without it. In Europe these days, you'll have no trouble at all finding people happy to speak with you in English. But ask yourself if you were a Frenchwoman or Italian man in Italy and people (yeah, like that will happen) in NYC spoke to you in French or Italian, how much would you learn of New York or American culture? Not much, plus it's unlikely. But Americans expect Europeans to speak English to them, and usually they can these days. It's become a lingua franca which is good for some, but I think not good in the long run. I feel a whole lot is lost in translation. So I will share my experiences and my tactics.
My strongest foreign language was always German. I got straight A's 4 years of high school advanced German and took Theological German at Harvard Divinity School one summer. I even reviewed a book in German. But let it be said, my German sucks, despite being of Swiss-German background (maybe I'm a changeling).
I took 1 semester of intensive ancient Latin in college and 1-1/2 years of French. When I embarked on my dissertation research, I had to use Latin immediately and fortunately medieval Latin is a whole lot easier than classical (but it comes in real handy for other romance language learning). When I moved to Paris for two years in 1985 till 1987, it was still very Gaullist and no one spoke English (at least comprehensibly). I left for Germany and Switzerland, got myself understood, and came back to Paris with an attitude. I ended up living with a French family who spoke no English, so I learned to shout in French (which I could never do in English). Still, my French wasn't great.
It was years of coming back to France on research till I became bilingual.Then I tackled Italian, not very successfully at first. But a few years back I bought Fluenz I-III Italian which is geared to an adult style of learning, combined with multiple trips to Italy. Only last year did I get Italian Fluenz IV and V, and am starting V right now -- but for the past three years of trips to Italy I have spoken nothing but Italian. While people will try to speak to you in English, if you persist in whatever language, you will gain respect and understand the culture far better.
But in all cases, I want to emphasize how important it is once you have a basic command of a language to use it! And then when you're back in your hotel, watch TV in that language. Plenty of American shows are on European TV (I have CSI NEW YORK in Italian on tv as I write this).
Turkish will probably defeat me. It's kind of like English in that it sounds nothing like it looks. But I am learning Greek slowly but steadily, and haved asked the people in Santorini, where I'm going in July to speak as much Greek to me as possible.
It's truly a wonderful word. To get the most of it, participate as much as possible, which means immersing yourself in language and culture.
I know I'm tedious to some so(to quote Bryan Adams) forgive me, I know not what I do.